Sanctification Signaling

Big Green Letters is piling on with niceness. Not only has Jared Wilson repeated the charge that Calvinists are mean, but Ray Ortlund re-quotes John Newton’s oft-cited comments about how to pursue controversy with love. (Justin Taylor may be the first Green Letter to appeal to Newton.)

But here’s the thing that Big Green Letters don’t seem to consider — that the pursuit of nice often ignores both sides of a disagreement. It opts for the third way without really sorting out what’s right and wrong in the controverted issues. Which means, that love or nice is its own sort of polemical meanness because in taking no side and offering no alternative except to say “love” or “be nice,” it ignores the people and principles in view. Imagine doing that in a dispute between a wife and a teenage son over mowing the grass. The dad says, “love each other.”


This side of Big Green Letters, this religious affectionism, is what makes evangelicals (even those who think they are Calvinist) so unreliable either in ecclesiastical or civil matters. Liel Liebovitz picked up on this in the spat between Sohrab Ahmari and David French over virtue and the current POTUS:

To put it briefly, the Never Trump argument is that they should be greatly approved of, while Donald Trump should rightly be scorned, because—while they agree with Trump on most things, politically—they are devoted to virtue, while Trump is uniquely despicable. The proofs of Trump’s singular loathsomeness are many, but if you strip him of all the vices he shares with others who had recently held positions of power—a deeply problematic attitude towards women (see under: Clinton, William Jefferson), shady business dealings (see under: Clinton, Hillary Rodham), a problematic attitude towards the free press (see under: Obama, Barack)—you remain with one ur-narrative, the terrifying folk tale that casts Trump as a nefarious troll dispatched by his paymasters in the Kremlin to set American democracy ablaze.

By analogy, The Big Green Letters supposedly agree with “mean” Calvinists about Christianity and church ministry (actually they don’t but go along, please), but want to hold themselves up as the party of sanctification because they don’t fight the way “mean” Calvinists do. But what if Big Green Letters had had a little more fight or agreed more with “mean” Calvinists when deliberating about whether to grant a Big Letter to Mark Driscoll, C. J. Mahaney, and James MacDonald?

It gets worse (thanks to Liebovitz) and points to the follow-the-money argument that Carl Trueman has made:

French and the other self-appointed guardians of civility, then, should do us all a favor and drop the civic virtue act. They’re not disinterested guardians of our public institutions; they are actors, working in an industry that rewards them for dressing up in Roman Republican drag and reciting Cicero for the yokels. This is why Bill Kristol, another of the Never Trumpers, could raise money for his vanity website, The Bulwark, and why he could expect his new creation be lauded on CNN as “a conservative site unafraid to take on Trump,” even as the site was staffed by leftist millennials and dutifully followed progressive propaganda lines. Like anyone whose living depends on keeping on the right side of a leftist industry, they understood that there’s only so much you can say if you care about cashing a paycheck—especially when the president and leader of your own party won’t take your phone calls.

The Never Trumpers, of course, aren’t the first Americans to hide cold careerism behind a wall of virtue-signaling. It’s why so many in the professional punditry went the way of Never Trump: More than anything else, the decision to align oneself with a movement that, ontologically, vows to reject the president a priori, no matter what he might say or do, regardless of your own supposed political beliefs, is a way of affirming one’s professional class loyalties, thus ensuring that your progeny will still be accepted and acceptable at Yale.

A YUGE part of Big Green Letters’ brand is nice. It increases hits at the website, registrations at conferences, sales of books, size of celebrity. In which case, if the New Calvinists really want to follow John Newton’s example and practice their niceness within the boundaries of a Christian communion like the Church of England rather than turning nice Calvinism into a movement.

Where’s Waldo (A Day After) Wednesday: Someone Needs to Call A Union Summit

Over at Justin Taylor’s blog comes word that Dane Ortlund has published an article on the relationship between justification and sanctification in the writings of Bavinck and Berkouwer. The summary point is as follows:

. . . these two Dutch Reformed thinkers are united in their understanding of justification as the self-conscious means of sanctification. The point is not that justification must be viewed (logically) as preceding sanctification rather than the other way round. Nor is the point that justification provides the ground for sanctification. Nor are they simply agreeing that sanctification must not be thought of as moralistic self-effort. On all this orthodox Protestant theology of various stripes is agreed.

Whether or not Ortlund is correct, his point about the priority of justification is one that union proponents may want to consider when arguing that the focus on justification is a form of Luther envy.

Ortlund goes on:

Bavinck and Berkouwer are making a more penetrating point. They understand that it is quite possible to decry self-resourced progress in holiness while retaining an unhealthy disconnect between justification and sanctification that sees justification as something beyond which one
‘graduates’ in Christian living. They argue that justification is to be seen as ‘settled’ in that the verdict is irreversibly delivered, yet justification is not to be seen as ‘settled’ in the sense that one must now therefore move on to sanctification. Justification is settled materially but retains critical ongoing epistemic import in Christian living. . . . We are justified by self-renouncing faith; we are sanctified by that same faith.

But this is not where Ortlund ends. For some reason he feels compelled to evaluate B&B Theological Enterprises according to standards established by Jonathan Edwards, where Ortlund finds the doctrine of union as the larger rubric for a holistic soteriology. He writes:

Justification is not only relevant for entrance into the people of God and for final acquittal, but, in between these two events, is the critical factor in the mind of the believer for healthy progressive sanctification.

This insight should, however, be placed into the larger soteriological framework of union with Christ. As has been argued by many in the tradition to which Bavinck and Berkouwer belong, union with Christ should be seen as the broadest soteriological rubric, within which both justification and sanctification are subsumed. . . . Had Berkouwer listened more closely to an American strand of his own Reformed tradition (especially Jonathan Edwards), he could have had the more balanced view of Bavinck while retaining his basic point as to the critical role justification plays in ongoing sanctification.

After reading this I’m left scratching my head once again when the subject of union comes up. First, I thought the Dutch Reformed were the most important for the recent recovery of the doctrine of union. Why they’d have to read Edwards to find the genuine article is not exactly the way I have heard the doctrine explained. Are union proponents reading from the same history of doctrine?

Second, a monergistic understanding of sanctification or union is of no great help in the Christian life the way it is commonly explained, as if a rebuttal to Rome’s charges of antinomianism. If union is the work of the Spirit, as is sanctification, how can Protestants claim that these doctrines or realities become motivations for good works? Rome’s logic was that once God does it all in salvation, a believer has no reason to be virtuous. Of course, Protestants rightly respond that the work of the Spirit is a reality that is conforming believers more to the image of Christ. Good works are inevitable such that those that are justified are also sanctified. But conformity to the image of Christ is not the work of a believer. It is the work of the Spirit.

In which case, Rome’s accusation stands. The Spirit-wrought nature of salvation in the Protestant scheme has an antinomian impulse and appearance because good works are not the substance or catalyst for any of the blessings of Christ’s work.

So I’m still wondering how great a breakthrough union is. It is a thought almost as befuddling where to find union in the history of Reformed doctrine.